At The Helm
For Susan Fisher, Indian Harbor Yacht Club’s first female commodore, there’s no such thing as a glass ceiling when it comes to sailing
photograph by ilona lieberman
hair and makeup by Maria Licari and Piret Aava for Warren•Tricomi, greenwich
A few years back, shortly after Susan Fisher became rear commodore of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, she noticed that people around the place were treating her a bit differently than they had in the past. Folks she had known for years, particularly the staff, no longer addressed her by name but as commodore. Whenever she was the highest level flag-officer on the premises, a standard bearing her rank was raised on the flagpole outside. And when she sat down at the restaurant, a smaller version of that flag was promptly placed on her table.
“I was really embarrassed,” Susan remembers. “I’d say, ‘Please don’t call me commodore’ and ‘Please don’t put that flag on my table.’ Then I realized that I was taking it personally when in truth this was a lot of tradition. Some of this tradition has to do with safety and honor and who’s in charge. On a boat you’ve got to have somebody in charge, somebody who’s running the fleet. I realized it was the office that was being recognized. And that completely changed my attitude.”
Last December, Susan was elected to the full commodore position, making her the first woman in the club’s history to take the helm. When she initially got on track for the job, she had some self-doubt. Although she has been associated with Indian Harbor most of her adult life, Susan hadn’t been involved in its governance. But in the same way that she came to terms with the trappings of her title, so it was that she found her sea legs in running the 500-member organization.
“Slowly but surely I would say my confidence built,” she says. “Not only did I get a little older and a little more mature, which never hurts, but I began to see the expertise of those around me. Plus, it’s sailors. They all help each other out and they’re pretty generous of spirit. I got a lot of encouragement.”
That’s to say nothing of her own experience, on the boards of the Whitby School and the Greenwich Land Trust; her family’s longtime involvement with the yacht club; and a passion for sailing that runs in her blood. “One way or another she’s been getting ready for this kind of challenge all her life,” says her brother Lawrence S. Huntington, who lives in New York and is a retired investment banker and world-class yachtsman.
“The important thing that Susan demonstrates is a love of the water and a near daily involvement with the water,” says Shelia Graves, a club member. “She’s not some removed figure as commodore. At the end of the day you have someone who is very well-rounded, who understands all aspects [of sailing].”
The youngest of five children, Susan grew up on the north shore of Long Island, near Stony Brook Harbor. She spent her childhood on the water, paddling around off the beach or sailing with her family. Her father, Prescott Butler Huntington, was a lawyer in New York City and an avid yachtsman. As far back as she can remember, family vacations were always on a boat, cruising to Maine and other destinations.
So many of her family ties go back to sailing. Her dad was commodore of the renowned Cruising Club of America, which puts on the famed Bermuda Race. Brother Frank was chaplain of that organization. And Larry, now in his seventies, is still building on his reputation as a blue-water sailor. Husband Bennett, who was lost on 9/11, was a director and treasurer at the Indian Harbor club. His parents, too, were long-standing members.
Leading the Way
Essentially, the commodore is president and chairman of the board of the yacht club. One gets on track for the job when the nominating committee recommends the individual for election to rear commodore, which is then followed by a term as vice commodore, and then the top job. Like her predecessors, Susan answers to the membership that elected her. To do the job adequately, the volunteer position requires a minimum of twenty hours a week.
Susan, whose term is for one year with the possibility of a second year, never longed for the job. She turned down an earlier chance for the post, in fact, and almost declined again. Then she conferred with brother Larry, a well-respected member at Indian Harbor and former commodore of the New York Yacht Club, and reconsidered. “I thought, who am I to refuse a challenge and maybe I can do something here, learn something,” she says. “I’ve been a member of the yacht club for twenty odd years and I’ve been there for about forty. This was the first time somebody said, ‘Hey, how about doing some heavy lifting?’ Who am I to say, ‘Not me, honey, I’m just here for the ride’?”
It helped that Larry, among other confidants, was there to call upon, especially when she was just getting started. “No bra burning,” her brother teased her early on. “The Betty Friedan School of Management, leave that behind.” But perhaps the best tip that he and others shared was the stuff of common sense: Avoid controversy. Don’t blast someone at a board meeting. Don’t needlessly make enemies. Given Susan’s open-minded personality, it’s dubious that she would have fallen into such a trap, but it helped to have the reminder.
“Susan’s leadership style works very well in a volunteer organization,” says past commodore Peter Cummiskey. “Susan gives people a voice. She doesn’t let that hamper her decision making, but includes it in her decision making.”
Her goals for the club, with its core mission of promoting sailing, are simple: “The most important thing is getting as many people out on the water as possible,” she says. “It’s not a new idea, but we want to improve and clarify ways to do that. For instance, encouraging spectators to come out on the committee boat.
“The others are kind of working goals. We’re always working to increase our membership pool and make the club accessible, attractive, inclusive and friendly.”
Susan also wants to smooth the inner workings of the organization by bringing better continuity to the ever-changing committees and leadership positions. “There are a couple of board members who call themselves ‘the ad hoc assistants to Susan,’” she says with a chuckle, “and they’re working on finding ways to do that, of getting the committees to have schedules, job descriptions and goals that go from one committee head to the next.”
Most people around Indian Harbor, Susan included, say that her performance is what matters most, not her gender. After all, other clubs along Long Island Sound, including Belle Haven, have already had women in charge. “I don’t think it’s really relevant,” says Cummiskey. “I don’t think gender is important in these decisions. It is true that it’s a milestone, but that was never something we were trying to achieve. We’ve always been a merit-based organization in which you try to fit the best people in the right jobs.”
Susan tends to agree. “I actually don’t think it’s particularly significant,” she says. “The number of people who are horrified by the idea of having a woman in this day and age are few and far between. And they’re getting less all the time.”
There was one instance, however, in which a club member expressed dissatisfaction with her ascension to the top job, though Susan handily defused the situation. “Somebody came after me just after I was made commodore and gave me a real rocket about how I’d only been hired because I was a woman and that I didn’t know anything and that this was ridiculous,” she says. “And I said, ‘Well, you might be absolutely right, but time will tell whether this was a good idea or not. Plus, I’m not going to turn away from a challenge and an opportunity. But hey, maybe you’re right.’” At this, she laughs, more at herself than anything. “Well, that tends to take the wind right out of people’s sails because it becomes a nonissue.”
Still, being Indian Harbor’s first female commodore assures Susan a prominent place on the club’s roll call of prestigious leaders over its 122-year history. She joins Frank Browne Jones, described as the club’s first member, who proposed its name and designed the Indian Harbor flag; Henry Doremus, first commodore; Clifford D. Mallory, who helped establish the club’s junior sailing program and who was a key figure in the early days of competitive yachting; Richard S. Nye, who along with his son Richard B. Nye, was a legendary ocean racer; and Thomas J. Watson, the former IBM chief, blue-water champion and world voyager; to name just a few.
Indian Harbor has an international reputation, with a lengthy list of achievements in practically every category of sailing, be it offshore racing, offshore cruising, or one-design class championships. In recent years, the club has been host to the U.S. Youth Sailing Championship (2009), Etchells World Championship (2002), and the national high school championship (2010.) And it has been well represented in the Bermuda Race, from Newport, Rhode Island, to Bermuda, since it began in 1906. Indian Harbor boasts of more than 300 entries in that fabled race over the years, with three overall winners. Two club members, meanwhile, have twice won the American Power Boat Association Gold Cup race, out of Detroit.
Every commodore brings his—or her—own special qualities and experience to the job. How Susan will compare to her predecessors is a story in the making. The full impact of her efforts won’t be known until her tenure is finished, says Shelia Graves, who has researched the history of the club. “Only time will tell,” she says. “But I think she’s doing a lot of things that are much needed right now.”
Among them, Susan is the face of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, a welcoming presence around the club, at regattas and during other events. “She shows up, which is huge,” says Shelia. “She is there to meet, to greet, to shake hands, to welcome people. She’s very present.”
Susan’s positive, unruffled outlook has been nurtured by years of study and counseling under the late Dr. Thomas Hora, a Hungarian-born psychiatrist who developed a spiritual practice known as “metapsychiatry.” Incorporating the teachings of the major religions and philosophers, Dr. Hora essentially brought God into helping people overcome their psychological issues.
Religion and spirituality had been a big part of Susan’s upbringing. Her father was Episcopalian and her mother a Quaker. Yet she was feeling unsettled in her life when a friend introduced her to Dr. Hora’s teachings back in the seventies. She signed up for one of his classes and from day one found resonance in his message. At the heart of Dr. Hora’s approach is the principle: “All problems are psychological and all solutions are spiritual.”
While others may become overly anxious when difficulties arise, Susan turns off the racket, finds a quiet place inside herself, and pays heed. That’s when the best answers and deepest understanding begin to emerge. It’s an approach that carried her through the dark hours after the airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers and no one had heard from Ben, who worked in the south tower, and later when it was confirmed that he had died.
A certain closure came the following summer when she wrote personal responses to the 725 condolence letters she received. “I wrote about twenty and said the same thing,” she recalls. “But then I began to get really quiet and meditate on each letter and it became a wonderful working through of the understanding of what happened and what it meant. Love hadn’t died. Intelligence hadn’t died. Humor hadn’t died. Substantial, wonderful conversation hadn’t died. The shape that I was used to was not there, but these qualities of Ben’s were still present in my life.”
Her spirituality also serves her as commodore, allowing her to set aside her ego, listen better to those around her, and take advantage of their knowledge, especially that of her much respected lieutenants. “I sort of see myself as allowing ideas to develop and stewarding the ideas around the group,” she says.
Susan, who lives in Stamford, on the Greenwich border, co-owns a 36-foot ketch, Counterpoint, with her husband’s former boat partner, John Nelson, and Bill Boysen, president of the Greenwich Land Trust. Because she prefers cruising and her partners like shorter jaunts out on the Sound, she tends to take overnight trips with other friends. In 2001, she joined Larry and company for a three-week transatlantic trip to England, to attend the 150th anniversary of the America’s Cup race.
“I like the camaraderie of it,” Susan says of cruising. “It’s amazing how six or eight people can happily exist in a very small space. We play cards at night, have breakfast, sit on deck, go down below, read a book, find a comfortable place on the boat, take your turn at the wheel. There’s a lot of variety and scenery and tasks. There’s a closeness with the people that’s fun.”
She’s had her share of regattas, too. When the Huntington family raced, everyone aboard had their given duties, Susan says, which they performed quietly and efficiently. Her husband’s family, on the other hand, tended to be more vocal. A race around the buoy with the Fishers involved a lot of shouting, mainly to be sure everyone was doing their job. But for Susan, being yelled at was unnerving, especially when she was younger.
Her solution was to find a task on the boat in which she knew exactly what to do, so no one would have any reason to raise their voice at her. She decided she’d handle the foreguy, which she trimmed when it needed to be trimmed and let it out when it needed to be let out. Yet the Fishers continued their vociferous ways. When Susan finally realized that all the noise had nothing to do with whether she was doing a good job or not, she figured out a way to quiet them down: During races, she started bellowing at herself: “I would yell, ‘Pull in the foreguy!’ at the top of my lungs, and I’d pull in the foreguy,” she recalls. “Then I’d say, ‘Let out the foreguy!’ and I let out the foreguy. And people left me alone.” She laughs at the absurdity of it all. “At that point I said, ‘This is crackers, I don’t need to be here,’ and I stopped racing.”
Susan, who has a degree in art history from Boston University, did a stint with VISTA in Appalachia after college. She’s also been a Montessori teacher and continues to work on an individual basis with parents and children. Her own son, Jamie, and daughter, Louisa, are now grown.
Besides sailing, Susan has other interests galore. She especially likes being outdoors. She skis, kayaks, gardens, works out regularly, sings with the Greenwich Choral Society, and stays socially active. She had both knees replaced not long ago, an indication that she intends to keep enjoying life and has no plans to slow down.